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Five Suggestions to Create an Effective Syllabus

I recently had a rather rude awakening when my son started college. He was home for the weekend and we were eating dinner when the topic of a low-test grade in a class came up. I asked him what his plan was moving forward – How much was this test worth his total grade? Was there a way to recover points? Was there an optional final or replacement policy? Now keep in mind, I asked because these are all things that I have thoughtfully put in my syllabus for my students. He gave me an exasperated look and said “I don’t know!”

“Well,” I responded, “did you check the syllabus?”

“Mom,” he said, “you can’t really expect me to have read every syllabus! I’m in 5 classes, I don’t have time to read every line of everyone.”

My academic heart died a little that day, but I also got a huge insight into the thought process of our students. A student in my class would never tell me to my face “Dr. Hurst I have 4 other classes and I just didn’t read your syllabus,” but my son had let the cat out of the bag.

So, if students aren’t lovingly going over every line of your hard work and time, what’s a professor to do?

1.    Keep It as Short as Possible!

It is a delicate balancing act to get all the important information into a syllabus, while at the same time keeping it short enough that students don’t give up reading. When it comes to the information that is specific to your classroom management, try a couple of these ideas:

  • Focus on the essentials.
    • How many assignments/tests/quizzes are there?
    • How many points are items worth?
    • What happens if they are late or don’t do an assignment?
    • Do you have an attendance policy?
  • Use a learning management system (LMS) to parse out more detailed information about assignments.
    • For example, I have the basics about summaries in my syllabus; there are five, they are worth 10 points each,  are submitted as a typed document online,  have to be between 300-500 words, and can be turned in up to 2 weeks late for 60% of original credit. However, the more nuanced aspects of each assignment are outlined on our learning management system.
    • Think about recording short videos (3-5 minute segments) about the detail behind a certain syllabus item.

2.    Be Clear and Stick to Your Policies

I have sat on several grade appeals committees and the majority of these make it to the committee because the syllabus language was vague or someone made up a policy that wasn’t detailed out on the syllabus. It is important for all instructors to outline the rules, policies, and guidelines of their course in their syllabus both for student clarity and to proactively avoid issues down the line.

That being said, you should think about which of your policies can stand to have a little flexibility built-in. No make-ups or no late work ever on any assessment is going to be tough to uphold. Think about maybe having five quizzes  and the lowest score drops, some kind of optional comprehensive exam, or a comprehensive assessment/project that counts twice (counting as its own grade and replacing a low score.) If you aren’t going to accept late work on assignments, think about having a few alternate assignments that someone can do to recover missed credit.

3.    Incorporate Visual Distinctions

In the modern era, we are all more conditioned to respond to visual stimuli. However, syllabi as rule tend to be very text-heavy, leading many students to skim without really reading or pausing to absorb the information.  Here are some ideas to add a visual pop to your class syllabus:

  • Banners, headers, or pictures
    • These can be nice and draw attention to an important item.
  • Graphs and pie charts
    • I’ve recently started using a pie chart to represent the grade breakdown for the contribution of assessments to the student’s overall grade. This makes it easier to see the value of certain assignments.
  • Borders
    • A border can also break up the monotony of the page.

4.    Think About Accessibility

Here’s another point that requires balance. You want to have a visually distinctive document, but you also need your syllabus to be accessible. A couple of things to keep in mind include:

  • Use Microsoft Word Styles to format (headings, paragraphs, etc.)
    • These are easier for screen readers to handle.
    • Rich text editors also have set Styles for headings and paragraphs.
  • Sparing use of color
    • About 5% of male students, and a smaller percentage of females, most likely have some degree of color deficiency. Using reds, greens, and yellow text (especially against a darker background) can be very difficult to impossible to read.
    • This isn’t to say you can’t use any color, but use it sparingly and choose darker colors where even if the shade can’t be determined, the text is still readable.
  • Sans serif fonts (like Ariel)
    • These are easier for people with dyslexia to read.
    • Especially elaborate serif fonts like Algerian or Monotype Corsivae are especially hard to read.
  • Columns
    • Research has also shown that students with dyslexia can more easily read text when it is broken into columns.
  • Rich text editor boxes and styles
    • If you’re uploading things to a learning management system, use the rich text editors and styles. Some documents are not easily read by screen readers.

5.    Be Ready to Keep Referring Students Back to the Syllabus.

Don’t despair! Even if students may not initially read your whole syllabus in the first few weeks of class that doesn’t mean you can’t still reference the document. College is a critical step for many students towards learning to become self-sufficient. The repetition of referencing back to the document can help them learn this skill.

Anecdotally, it does seem that non-traditional students are better about using the syllabus. Some of the reluctance to read the syllabus is just newness to the college setting. There are so many intangible things we are teaching students – responsibility, self-reliance, deadlines, etc. Just be prepared to answer questions by directing them to the syllabus, and take it as part-and-parcel of the growth that we are helping our students achieve.

About the Author

Amy G. Hurst earned her doctorate degree from Oklahoma State University in Biomedical Sciences in 2005. Following a post-doctoral position in protein biochemistry, she began her career as a Professor in Biological Sciences for Rose State College in 2006. Amy has taught both Majors and Non-Majors Biology, Microbiology, Zoology, and Biotechnology courses. In addition to teaching, she is also the Biological Science coordinator and has served as Faculty Senate president. Amy’s greatest pride and joy are her 2 sons, Tanner who is a freshman in college, and Logan who is in middle school. Both boys keep her very busy supporting them in their academic and athletic pursuits and continue to help her grow as an academic. In her free time, Amy is trying to run a half marathon in all 50 states before she turns 50.

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